Nets begin clearing room for LeBron chase

NEW YORK – Finally, the New Jersey Nets started down the perilous path of shedding salary, clearing cap space and trying to transform themselves into a competitive commodity for that hell-bent run at LeBron James in the summer of 2010. Richard Jefferson goes, the roster turns over and the post-Jason Kidd transformation takes its most dramatic change.

The Nets need a perfect storm to make this happen once James can opt out of his Cleveland Cavaliers contract and make himself the most desirable free agent in NBA history. The Nets are counting on part-owner Jay-Z’s personal crusade to recruit his close friend to Brooklyn, but there’s nothing to discuss until the Nets remake themselves for the long run.

Richard Jefferson leaves for Milwaukee with three years and $42.4 million left on his contract, and Nets president Rod Thorn and GM Kiki Vandeweghe made a dramatic draft-day transformation that included the Bucks’ 7-footer Yi Jianlian, and two No. 1 picks on Thursday night – Stanford's Brook Lopez and California’s Ryan Anderson. They would’ve been satisfied with this change, but a player who they had considered picking at No. 21 – Memphis' Chris Douglas-Roberts – dropped to them early in the second round.

New Jersey had hoped that West Virginia’s Joe Alexander would drop to them at No. 10, but Milwaukee grabbed him and Lopez was the 7-foot forward they were grateful to still find on the board. Anderson is a 6-foot-10 shooter, and yes, Jianlian is still a mystery to most in the NBA. He suffered with injuries and the cultural transition as the sixth pick a year ago, but he also showed flashes and possibilities that make him far from a lost cause.

“A big future,” Thorn gushed of Yi, but no one should kid themselves. For the Nets, Yi is as much a business as a basketball decision. Ownership believes the immense Asian-American community in metropolitan New York will fill seats for the lame-duck Nets in the ghostly Meadowlands Arena.

Still, this was a step closer to the chase for LeBron James. The Knicks are determined to be a part of that recruitment, but they have a long way to go to shed the contracts needed to get under the cap. The Nets had two first-round picks this year, and two again in 2009, because of the fabulous Kidd trade that fleeced the Dallas Mavericks.

They’ll have Devin Harris running the floor with young, athletic teammates, with Vince Carter the odd fit in this refurbishing. The Nets are destined for the lottery again, but they have two more years to develop this cast, reconstruct credibility and pray that Cleveland GM Danny Ferry never finds James a running mate. In 2010, it is believed that James will work hard to convince his Team USA teammate, Chris Bosh, and perhaps Phoenix’s Amare Stoudemire, to come play with him.

James will have to make a hard choice on his hometown Cavs and the global marketing stage that New York could bring him. James was lukewarm on the mid-season trade for Ben Wallace and Delonte West, and colleagues of Ferry believed that his mission on Thursday night was to draft a player who could make the most immediate impact. This turned out to be a Nets target, N.C. State’s 6-9 freshman J.J. Hickson, at No. 19, but the Cavs’ race against time moved into a different gear on draft day.

J.J. is a good prospect, but he’s no Jay-Z in LeBron’s life. The Nets just got younger and leaner, and make no mistake: Even as long shots go, they crept a little closer to King James on Thursday night.